Our Norwegian Saga: The Arctic Circle, Bødo and the Lofotens

September 17, 2018

Nestled in our cabin bed, we woke at 6:48 a.m., startled by an announcement that we would cross the Arctic Circle at 7:09. Before Greg had even swung his bare feet onto the floor, Joan had sprung out of bed and begun to put on her cold weather clothes. By the time Greg had his socks on, she was almost ready to go out the door. Ready to cross over into the Arctic where her ancestors had once plied their trade as fishermen? One would say so. We stood, transfixed, as we passed a large metal marker in the shape of a globe, erected, almost easy to miss, on a small unnamed island off of the port bow. There was a small ceremony, attended by the god Njord, on the deck of the ship. In order to become a follower of this cold god, a sacrifice had to be made. Greg accepted a ladle full of ice down his back and was given cloudberry wine for his pains.

Passing the Arctic Circle, 2018

Long ago, ancestors from the islands of Vikna and Leka would depart in their working boats, perhaps in a typical square-rigged nordlandsjekt, and fare to the Lofoten Islands, northern Norway’s ancient fishing grounds. Maybe they once sailed by this same little island, nets ready, anticipating their catch.

Fishing in northern Norway was always a dangerous trade, and Joan can easily recount the ancestors who died in the effort to harvest the teeming fisheries of the archipelago. On this day Joan, descendant of hardy fishermen and their patient and fearful spouses, crossed a line so many had crossed before her. Some would not cross back over that line.

One of them, Great-great Grandfather Ole Hagerup Bårdsen, a native of Hortavær, Leka, died on the island of Austvågøya in Lofoten and is buried at the churchyard in Kabelvåg. This, too, we had hoped to visit one day, in remembrance of ships full-laden with Norway’s “white gold” cod, or torsk, but also in memory of widows looking to the north, waiting for sails on the horizon, fearful they might not appear, anxious that a berth occupied on the voyage out would be unexpectedly empty upon its return.

A noon port of call at Bødo took us to a rainy dockside. A short walk into town, guided by Justin and his GPS, brought us to a museum where we learned about the devastation of the central part of the city in 1940 as a result of German bombing. The little Nordlands Museet, small by any standards, nevertheless meticulously preserved the memory of a small city and a great devastation. The memory of war and of occupation is ubiquitous in Norway, a caution to the younger generations that freedom is precious, fragile, and often fleeting.

Tonight, we participated in a “Viking Feast” in the tiny hamlet of Borg near the village of Bøstad in Vestvågøy, Lofoten. We traversed the landscape of the rugged island in the evening, traveling by bus over a spine of hills from Stamsund to Borg. The landscape was striking, with mountains reflected in lakes and pond and clouds and mist cloaking the hillsides. There were meadows and pastures, a rich land now, and in the past, when Viking chieftains ruled here.

The Lofotr Longhouse at Borg, 2018

As evening fell we entered the Lofotr longhouse at Borg. The structure is a stunningly authentic reconstruction of a Viking chieftain’s residence. There we ate a substantial meal of potatoes and vegetables and delicious pork—a feast for we latter-day Vikings. Our hosts in Viking dress, did not stint the food and honey wine. Our Andrea volunteered to accept a challenge, one she most successfully accomplished. The chieftain of the feast announced then that henceforth in Viking lore she would be known as “Andrea the Mighty,” a nickname our family readily adopted for her as well.

Inside the Viking Longhouse at Borg, 2018

We listened to the prophetic, eerie words of a wise woman to the beat of a shaman’s drum.  The lady of the house lifted her voice in song while the chieftain boasted of his coming adventures to Frankia and beyond. We were invited to dance around the fire and celebrate our good fortune and easy passage through these waters. We congratulated ourselves for our adventurous spirit, our queen beds and buffet lunches on the cruise notwithstanding. Still, mayhap, we deserve a little credit for abandoning the familiar and seeking out the novel and exotic. Maybe true adventure is beyond most of us, but the attempt counts for something.

As it turned out, we passed momentarily through Kabelvåg on the bus ride home to meet the MS Spitsbergen in Svolvær. Joan had never thought to be here in her lifetime; indeed, as we later reflected, she may have been the only one of her family to pass this way in one hundred and fifty-eight years. We tried to spy the churchyard in the gloom, across from the apt-named Lofotkatedralen (the Lofoten Cathedral) and thought silently of Grandfather Ole as we passed him by in the dark—our voyage continuing where his had ended.

Let us think a moment of all those who went before, when the passage up this coast was a hundred-fold more perilous. Let us think upon a thousand or more years of sailors and fishermen in the Lofotens and drink a parting glass of honey wine to those who came home and those who did not.

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